By Justin Kroll
January 30, 2022
Michael Starrbury is about to become a household name.
Michael Starrbury was the executive producer and lead writer on the Netflix series Colin in Black and White, but you wouldn’t know it from the reviews. Whether a good one like The Guardian’s or a bad one like IndieWire’s, many of the early reviews of the Colin Kaepernick docuseries that quickly became a Netflix top-10-most-watched agreed about one thing: that Michael Starrbury, one of the lead creatives on the series, wasn’t worth mentioning.
It doesn’t bother Starrbury, though. In fact, during a phone call from his home office in Brooklyn Park a few weeks before the late-October premiere of his biggest project to date, he predicted it.
“When you have names like Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick involved, nobody’s checking for me,” Starrbury laughed then. “So regardless of what I did on it, it doesn’t really matter.”
But that’s where Starrbury’s wrong. What he did on Colin in Black and White does matter, if for no other reason than because he did it. The Brooklyn Park-by-way-of-Milwaukee late-40s dad never went to college, let alone took a screenwriting class. He didn’t even care about movies all that much. That is, until he saw the one that would change his life.
“I wasn’t filming on Super 8 or anything like that,” Starrbury said. “I didn’t go to college. I just had regular jobs out of high school. It was when I saw Pulp Fiction that I started to wonder. I was just blown away. I didn’t know movies could be like that.”
And once he knew movies could be like that, he set about figuring out how to become the person who gets to make movies like that. Now, nearly 30 years, lots of twists and turns, a trip to the Obama White House, and a big-time Netflix series later, here Michael Starrbury sits—poised to start making movies like that himself. Maybe once he does, the reviews might finally mention him.
It seems like you’re achieving your dream.
It’s funny you think it’s a dream. I love what I do, but none of this stuff comes easy. And then even when you get to the point to where your premiere is a month away or whatever, you’re already into two, three other things. What I mean is maybe there’s really no time to reflect, to sit back and to bask in it. You’re thinking about your career, you’re thinking about what’s next, and you’re just trying to take those next steps.
Next steps that include making your own films?
When I started writing, television wasn’t really the goal; the goal was how can I have a career like Paul Thomas Anderson or Steven Soderbergh or someone like that. And for me, writing was easier to do because it’s the least expensive. The goal was just to get good enough at that so that people started paying attention to my work so I could eventually direct my own work. In the meantime, I love writing.
I mean, if you’re going to be doing this in the meantime, you’ve latched on with huge talent in Ava DuVernay.
Ava being solely responsible for making me a showrunner on Colin in Black and White is huge. It’s immensely helpful, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it’s helpful for the next thing that I want to do myself. I loved writing Colin in Black and White, but like I mentioned, the guys who I grew up watching were Tarantino.
I just watched the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. It was a beautiful trailer, and I can totally see the appeal of doing that.
Completely, man. I’m watching that trailer and thinking, “Who gets to make movies like that?” And, I don’t know, I mean, he gets to make movies like that. Quentin makes movies like that. It’s a small group. And good for them, I say. But everybody has to find their own path, and for me, the way that I went about it is: I earned some respect as a writer, and so now it’s a little bit easier for me, for people to take me seriously as a director because of the experience that I have on sets and running the writers’ room and things like that.
Ava DuVernay making you a showrunner must help. Just being around Ava in general makes things better because she’s that kind of leader. But one of her biggest strengths was trusting me, I think. That’s the thing that made me super comfortable, and just her knowing that I could do the job. I’ve always thought I could do it, but she’s the first person in Hollywood who just basically told me I could. I’m forever grateful for that. My next project may not be with her, but there’s always that little piece of Ava in my ear now.
What does it feel like when you’ve got something that’s about to drop that you know is, by virtue of what it is, going to be the biggest thing, the most known thing that you’ve ever been fully a part of?
Well, I hadn’t thought of it that way until just now, until you said that. I honestly don’t—
No, that’s OK. And it goes back to what I was saying. Once it’s done, I’m moving on to the next thing. But again, it’s going to be huge. I think there’s already hints of the polarization. But I believe that anybody who watches the show fairly and sincerely and without any kind of confirmation bias going in will come out with a better understanding of who Colin was and what made Colin Colin.
Was there pressure in telling Colin’s story with Colin right there watching you tell it?
I consider Colin Kaepernick a friend. It was easy. He’s super smart, and he picks things up super quickly, and you can see how his mind works. And yeah, man, he was super prepared. Telling these stories for Colin, the difficult part was just getting in a groove of how to get the notes. This is not a reenactment of real life; this is “How do I get the spirit of the story on the page to Colin’s satisfaction?” Once we got in a groove with all that stuff, yeah, we started to rock and roll.
Do you get nervous when something you worked on comes out?
I honestly think, because there’s a separation between the writing and the making of it, it’s when you’re giving it to the director and the actors—that’s when it’s more nerve-racking for me, like, “I hope they like it.” But at this juncture—yeah, I don’t know. It could just be my experience. I’ll never forget being at Sundance with Mister and Pete. That made me nervous. That was my first time ever experiencing anything like that. Watching how the sausage gets made, maybe that just jades you a little bit.
I can see that.
With this one, because of the, I don’t know—there’s a political side to it even though I don’t think the show is political. Well, I shouldn’t say that. There are things in it that we touch on—some potentially incendiary moments. I think what’s going to happen is—I think they used to call them watercooler moments. I think this’ll have a couple of those.
But you guys weren’t the ones who layered politics onto Colin’s narrative in the first place.
And let me just state that the goal was to show the genesis of Colin Kaepernick. Like, where did this guy who was brave enough to protest the way he did come from?
I’ve got to imagine that when you were sitting there just outside of Minneapolis writing this show during summer 2020, everything took on a different magnitude.
It wasn’t easy, to be honest with you. Not only was I working on this show; I was writing a movie for Universal. I was struggling with that one tremendously because that one was definitely more of a comedy and the type of comedy that was just not in me in the moment. Those things were not in me. But with the Colin thing, I think all of the writers were putting their effort and their honesty on the page, trying to capture the spirit of his childhood. When you put the layer of the George Floyd situation on—the aura, the vibe, everything in the zeitgeist here—and then you’re writing—yeah, might have been subconscious, but it’s the vibe, it’s the universe bringing that to you.
Do you feel like you could be doing this work as effectively if you were in L.A.?
I can work from anywhere, which is why I live here. I could have had a much different career had I lived in L.A. There have been offers, things that would have to move me there, that I passed on because, again, I have an idea of what I want my career to look like.
Like we’ve said, “here,” for you, is Brooklyn Park, but you grew up in Milwaukee, right?
In Milwaukee, and I used to come to Minnesota in the summers to hang out with my dad, to be with my father. And around the high school age, I just asked my dad if I could just stay with him, and I’ve been here ever since. I lived in Brooklyn Park, graduated from Osseo.
Got a regular job, and then you saw Pulp Fiction?
I was sitting in my little apartment in Dinkytown, and I didn’t have anything but an air mattress and some clothes. And my upstairs neighbor was moving out, and they asked me if I wanted their desk. I was like, “Yeah, I’ll take it.” So, I took the desk, and I sat down at the desk. I remember saying to myself, “Hey, I want to make movies. I want to do something like Quentin Tarantino.” But I didn’t have anything to shoot. I didn’t even know the first thing about it. So, I dug into screenwriting. I went to Barnes and Noble and I bought the script in book form for Pulp Fiction. I remember getting back to the apartment, opening the book, and seeing, I think it said, “INT Diner.” And I called the bookstore and I asked them, “What does INT mean?” I had no idea. And they told me “interior,” and I figured out the rest.
You figured out what INT meant, and next thing you know you’re the showrunner on an Ava DuVernay series?
Well, I had to work. I ended up getting hired to do some technical support. And I met this girl named Tina Engelstad, who’s my wife of 20 years now, so there’s that part of it. I would come home, and I would go right to writing. And I would wake up early before work and I would write—trying to teach myself how to do it. It was like trying to figure out a Rubik’s cube, right? I was just addicted to it. And she noticed it. Some years passed. I was working and I was still doing this and really trying to become a writer. And I was doing these little videos—these tiny little short films. And Tina said, “Why don’t you stop working and just really focus on your writing, and I’ll take care of everything?” And how do you not marry that person? She believed in me; she believed in what I wanted to do.
So, when you’re sitting there writing, figuring out writing, I mean, what are you writing?
Everything. When I first started, I was writing shorts, I was writing feature films. I have feature films that no one will ever see that are not good, but I wrote them because I was trying to learn. I wrote a spec episode of The Simpsons that I still think is hilarious. It’s probably the stupidest thing I ever wrote, but I just wanted to—I gave that a shot. And I think it made it to the second round of some contest way back in the day.
When did it become clear that you were more than just a dude learning to write based on other people’s scripts at a free desk?
I didn’t have a network of people—anyone who could read my writing and tell me if it was good or not. I was judging it based on an online peer group a little bit and the writers at the time who I admired. So, I submitted a comedy to McKnight, and it was a finalist. And whatever that means, it made me feel good at the time. It made me feel like, OK, this is something I can do. And then in 2002ish, I won the McKnight for the first time, and I was blown away. That was, like, 25 grand, and we used that to get up out of that apartment.
Still, my wife was the breadwinner. And I got derailed a little bit because we had our first kid in 2004 and another in 2009. So it slowed things down a little bit because there was a moment there where it looked like things were about to start picking up with a little bit of Hollywood attention, I had my first manager out there, and blah, blah, blah. But everything happens for a reason. And eventually—I think it was around 2008, 2009 that I started to write Mister and Pete.
And if there is one “big break” in the Michael Starrbury story, it’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete—a film that Michelle Obama ultimately screened at the White House.
I went to the Austin Film Festival and Writers Conference, and I’m hanging out with people, meeting some people. And I met someone that I had met online before, my friend Julie, and she connected me with George Tarrant. We became friends, and he was so good with story, so I sent him Mister and Pete just for his thoughts. And he read it, and his only comment was, “Wow.” And he was like, “Would you mind if I send this over to George Tillman [Jr.]?” Over a weekend, he read it. And I remember it was either Monday or Tuesday, he called and said, “I’m making your movie.” That’s how that thing took off. He was working on Faster at the time with the Rock. And so, yeah, we shot it in New York in 2012, barely made the Sundance deadline.
At what point did you feel comfortable calling yourself a screenwriter?
I remember when I signed with my agent at CAA, I said, “I still don’t really feel like a writer.” And he looked at me; he was just like, “Do you understand how many people are calling themselves writers who haven’t done nearly as much as you?” And I hadn’t thought about it like that. I still felt like I’m not ready to call myself a writer. To me, Aaron Sorkin’s a writer.
What if someone brings it up at a cocktail party? “Hey, this is my buddy Mike. He’s a screenwriter.”
Sometimes I feel uncomfortable getting into it. It’s hard for me to be in Minnesota talking about what I do in Hollywood. If people don’t know me, they get the wrong idea because it seems like a kind of a pretentious thing, and it’s not.
I can appreciate that.
I play basketball with guys who have no idea, and I’ve been playing with them since probably 2001ish. So yeah, I’m pretty private about it. Maybe they’ll see this, though. I do remember one time we were in the Star Tribune or something, and someone at basketball was just like, “Dude, was that you in the paper?”
So notoriety might come with the territory, and you’re not shunning it, but that’s not why you’re doing this.
People told me I was insane to not go to the Emmys for When They See Us. I didn’t want to go. I don’t have any desire to be that person. I understand celebrating When They See Us—it was great that those guys are known as the Exonerated Five. But for me personally, I’m not really into the glitz of it. I’m not going to pretend like I wasn’t one of these people who would practice their Oscar speech in the shower; I used to do that. But then as I got older, it just meant less to me. We have a premiere for Colin in Black and White next week that I’m excited to go celebrate with the writers, to be with the writers. I haven’t seen those guys since COVID hit.
The awards and stuff, I mean—if I’m being honest, there’s things in the works that, if they come to fruition, it’ll be exactly the thing that I’ve been working for. But it’s not here yet; it’s just something we’re working on.
Really? How soon?
It’s hard to gauge, but the idea would be if you were to talk to me in the spring of 2022, I’ll be on my own movie set.
It’ll be my Reservoir Dogs. It’ll definitely be the first time that I have a chance to put a stamp on what kind of voice I would like to have as a filmmaker. It’s my script; the producers understand where I’m coming from. And, again, if I can just give a little shout-out to Ava DuVernay—her giving me the opportunity on When They See Us, and that being Emmy nominated, and her giving me the opportunity to run the writers’ room on Colin in Black and White. You get the cosign of someone with that stature, and people start to look at you differently.
Is it a new script?
The script that we’re talking about I started writing in 2011.
I know what a Quentin Tarantino film is like. I know what a Paul Thomas Anderson film is like. What’s a Michael Starrbury film like?
I tried to do something that I felt like Elmore Leonard and Quentin Tarantino would do, and if Steven Soderbergh put a little sprinkle on it. The plot is not a secret—it was literally on the Hollywood blacklist in 2011. It’s called Watch Roger Do His Thing. And it’s, I don’t know, it’s my homage to crime stories with levity—there’s a nonchalance to this thing that I think is missing now. We don’t really get those kinds of movies anymore. And I think I’m the perfect guy to bring that flavor back. When you’re watching the movie on cable, you’re going to want to keep watching because you’re like, “Oh, that scene with so-and-so is about to come up.”
I’m not saying you’re making National Treasure here, but it’s the reason I’ve watched National Treasure like 50 times—because every time I see it’s on, I’m like, “Dammit. Now I’ve got to watch.”
That’s the feeling. We call it a movie you can really chill with. There’s levity throughout; it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
So then, one year from now, what is Michael Starrbury doing?
I cannot predict Hollywood, but I can tell you where I would like to be: I’m done editing my film, and I’m in the writers’ room working on my next Netflix series. The idea is to start making movies every couple of years but always have something going on the television side. More than one thing—I’m not just wanting to run television shows; I want to produce television shows as well. I know a lot of talented people, and I get a lot of pretty good scripts sent my way. I want to build something.
All this from that tiny apartment, a Pulp Fiction script book, and a free desk. Do you still have that, by the way?
Oh, absolutely not. That thing was dangerous. It was metal, and the corners were so sharp. Yeah. That thing was very, very dangerous. The air mattress is gone; the desk is gone. We’ve moved on.
Moved on to, right now, Colin in Black and White. Good luck with that.
I think it’ll be fun. This part’s not so bad. I hope people enjoy the show, and then we’ll worry about the rest. Me being a little bit inconvenienced because people enjoy the work—I can live with that.